- The Washington Times - Saturday, December 20, 2003

MOSCOW — During the two weeks since the Kremlin’s resounding parliamentary election victory on Dec. 7, there has been considerable speculation that Russian President Vladimir Putin may seek to use his numerical superiority in the Duma to change the constitution to allow terms in office beyond the official two-consecutive limit.

Even after Mr. Putin made public statements signaling that he is pleased with the current constitution, the conventional wisdom appears to be that he intends to stay in office for a very long time. However, he does not have to have the constitution amended to remain a powerful figure in Russian politics after he leaves office.

With Mr. Putin’s public opinion polls hitting close to 80 percent, virtually any candidate who runs against the president is sure to be trounced. The electorate discredited two politicians who ran against Mr. Putin before — Communist leader Gennady Zyuganov and Grigori Yavlinsky of Yabloko — during this month’s Duma elections.

Beyond the popular — but not taken very seriously — nationalist Vladimir Zhirinovsky, Mr. Putin faces an almost empty field. There are rumors that the Communists and the hybrid leftist-nationalist Rodina party may even not field candidates.

Why Mr. Putin should not allow the constitution to be changed to allow more than two consecutive presidential terms has not been made clear, beyond that it is what some countries — mostly Western — do not permit.

The U.S. Constitution did not forbid third-term presidents until President Franklin D. Roosevelt was elected four times, serving three full terms. A constitutional amendment was adopted then to limit terms, after 150 years of developing democratic institutions.

Russia’s experiment with democracy is slightly older than a decade. This is not to support the idea of Mr. Putin as “president for life” — only to point out that Russia probably desires a constitutional order that reflects its current level of political development. After four years of Mr. Putin, it should finally be clear that he has no intention of grafting Western ideas and institutions onto the Russian body politic.

The nexus of Russia’s present political culture is the personality of one man — Vladimir Putin. There is no doubt the Kremlin crossed the line in terms of law while supporting its favorite parties during the Duma campaign, though few would claim a different outcome would have negatively affected Mr. Putin’s popularity among Russians (as opposed to only voters).

His popularity goes beyond politics. The Kremlin has gone to great lengths to present him as a representative and leader of the Russian people, not as a politician. This is Mr. Putin’s most powerful card, and why he probably sees no need to change the constitution: His personal popularity can be translated into political authority without his becoming “president for life.”

Legislation exists in the Duma that would change Russia from a presidential republic to a parliamentary one. It is widely believed the presidential administration ordered United Russia, the Kremlin’s primary ally in the Dec. 7 Duma election and big winner this month, to draft these new laws as a contingency. With the Duma firmly under Kremlin control, serious consideration of making the government responsible to the parliament instead of the president could be under way.

In many ways, this course makes sense for Mr. Putin and his supporters. It is anybody’s guess if he personally wants to be president for three or more terms. However, there appears to be no doubt that his power base — the security forces and market reformers — want Mr. Putin’s political approach to leading the country maintained for the foreseeable future.

By turning to a parliamentary republic, Mr. Putin could, in theory, determine Russia’s future as long as he liked without being president. If, for example, United Russia were to officially become the party of the president, Mr. Putin could become a power broker long after his official departure from the political arena.

If this were to happen, Russia would follow the Mexican example of parliamentary democracy. In Mexico, the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), ruled for decades before it was voted out of power.

Is this model good for Russia’s attempt to build a democratic polity? Probably not, but maybe it will take decades for the Russian electorate to be developed enough to go beyond the support of one man and start to make political choices based on different and conflicting visions of the future that are policy-based.

In the United States, the Republican Party’s slogan against Roosevelt’s third-term bid in 1940 was “Washington wouldn’t, Grant couldn’t, and Roosevelt shouldn’t.”

Should Mr. Putin? Given the nature of Russia’s political culture, the answer most likely will be in the affirmative. Mr. Putin’s amorphous agenda is very popular; having it continue without him officially at the helm just may be what the enigmatic president may want.

—Peter Lavelle is a UPI Moscow-based analyst and author of the electronic newsletter Untimely Thoughts, untimely-thoughts.com.

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